Texas Drones Built To Save Lives | KERA News

Texas Drones Built To Save Lives

Aug 13, 2014

Drones have gotten international notoriety because of their ability to take out bad guys (and, at times, bystanders). Sometimes, they’re described as killing machines. But drones can also save lives.

Two UNT professors have developed a drone for emergencies – it’s capable of providing Wi-Fi to storm-ravaged areas where telephone access is out.

Hovering 2o feet in the air is something that sounds like a beehive, and looks like a spider.

But this five pound drone is nothing to fear. In fact, it could be a lifesaver.

UNT professors Shengli Fu and Yan Wan created this drone, also known as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), to deliver Wi-Fi to victims at disaster sites – like earthquakes or tornadoes – where communication systems have been knocked out.

“We can dispatch in 20 minutes,” Fu says, “And then send Wi-Fi internet access so people can transmit their real time information back to the rescue team and the rescue team can say, we’re here, hold on a second.”


UNT professors Yan Wan and Shengli Fu developed a drone that disperses a Wi-Fi signal up to three kilometers.

Better Than Café Wi-Fi

Current Wi-Fi networks transmit a signal that spans only 100 meters, about the length of a football field. This drone can send Wi-Fi up to three thousand meters.

The impressive distance comes from two directional antennas, one on the remote drone and one in a safe place, that focus the energy in one direction.

“The challenge for the directional antennas,” Fu says, “is you have to make sure they’re facing each other at all times. Which can be challenging if storm winds are jostling the drone around.

So Yan created an antenna that rotates to always align with the control center. 

Emergency Response Systems

The six-legged creation is part of a larger White House Presidential Innovation Fellows project to create Smart Emergency Response Systems.

When disasters strike, there’s an enormous cost. In the U.S., the total cost of fire damage is more than $300 billion. Katrina cost $1 trillion in direct and indirect damage.

So the White House has brought together dozens of researchers from universities like UNT and MIT, and leaders at companies like National Instruments and Boeing to create new emergency response ideas.

Andy Chang, with National Instruments, says many proposals incorporate UAVs for delivery, humanoid robots, animals, and autonomous vehicles.

“What we zoomed in on is leveraging a variety of different robotic systems,” Chang says. National Instruments is working with the University of Washington to incorporate a vehicle it programmed to help the City of Seattle respond to emergencies – like the mudslide that killed more than forty people in March.

“They want to work with us to figure out how to enhance what they currently have, and also give us real world requirements,” Chang says. “We were very excited to work with [them].”

The autonomous vehicle controlled and powered by National Instruments’ technologies.
Credit National Instruments

Technical, Regulatory Obstacles

One of the greatest technical challenges for robotic systems like drones is battery life. Right now the battery for the five pound drone developed by UNT researchers lasts 20 minutes or so, which means Wan and Fu may have to redesign a lighter vehicle.

Beyond technical obstacles, there’s regulatory hurdles. The Federal Aviation Administration has put stricter rules on commercial use of drones. Which is why Fu is working with emergency agencies and the military.

“With their help we can measure the designs,” Fu says, “Then we can show FAA it’s safe, low cost, and very valuable for civilian usage.”